Last month saw the start of our new series looking at the Nescafe Plan project in Mexico. Today’s blog by Yessenia Soto, who visited the project to see it in action, takes a look at the barriers and challenges faced by the agronomists who will be training coffee farmers in sustainable practices.
The hardy coffee plants that pack Don Serafín Cruz’s two-hectare (five-acre) farm in Mexico are full of bright red fruit that is ready to be harvested. Yet on parts of the farm, the coffee plants are tall, with sparse foliage and little fruit on their spindly branches.
When asked why he doesn’t pull out the plants that aren’t producing well and replace them with new ones, Don Serafín looks nostalgically at those sickly shrubs that are 30 to 40 years old, and responds that he can still “get a little more out of them.”
Mexico is the world’s seventh biggest coffee producer, yet it is one of the countries with the lowest productivity per hectare. Helping thousands of producers to change that reality is one of the priorities of Nestlé’s Nescafé Plan.
The Nescafé Plan, which will also be implemented in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Ivory Coast, Thailand and the Philippines, includes an investment of more than £185 million in training, technical assistance and technology transfers to help Nescafe’s suppliers to improve their farm productivity, the quality of their coffee and their income. Over the next five years, Nestlé will double the amount of coffee that it buys directly from farmers and their associations in Mexico for Nescafé, which could benefit more than 170,000 farmers by 2015.
Nestlé will work with the Rainforest Alliance, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and the 4C Association (a global community of stakeholders in the coffee sector) to achieve this goal. Experts from the Rainforest Alliance will provide technical assistance and training to Nescafé agronomists who will be in turn training the coffee farmers.
The Nescafé Plan will also promote coffee farm renovation through the introduction of plants with higher yields and resistance, and implementation of the Nescafé Better Farming Practices (NBFP), which were designed to help farmers increase their coffee production and quality while moving toward compliance with the social and environmental sustainability criteria of the SAN and the Common Code for the Coffee Community, or 4C Code.
However, achieving such improvements in a country where most coffee is grown by small farmers and indigenous communities is a significant challenge. “We will work with very traditional farmers who are rooted in their ways and resistant to change, who use little technology and have limited entrepreneurial vision,” explained José Guadalupe Pérez, who heads the Sustainable Products Certification Program at the NGO Pronatura Sur, a member of the SAN. Pérez led the Plan’s first workshop for agronomists and technicians who will be responsible for training and helping farmers in the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Puebla.
The farmers expressed some reservations during the initial visits by the agronomists. Like Don Serafín, most aren’t convinced that they need to renovate their farms by replacing coffee plants that are old and unproductive. Some say they don’t want to cut coffee bushes that were planted by their parents, some believe that a plant is good as long as it produces even a little coffee, whereas others have farms that are so small (less than one hectares/ two acres) that removing the old bushes to make room for new ones seems like too great a sacrifice.
The farmers are also reluctant to adopt other Nestlé Better Farming Practices, such as pruning their coffee plants, fertilizing the soil, or creating terraces and nurseries; keeping records of their agrochemical and fertilizer applications, production and costs; building storerooms suitable for equipment and chemicals; or complying with basic employee benefits for farm workers.
“We know they want to change because they want to produce more coffee,” says Rogelio Trinidad, a technical field advisor for Nestlé in Chiapas, “But after explaining everything, they tell us that before they’ll participate, they want to see if it really works.”
Nestlé will provide training, advice and materials for implementing its good practices, but farmers have to be convinced to invest their own resources and manpower into making the varied improvements.
A first step to convince the farmers will be to establish model farms in each region where the Plan is active, so that coffee farmers can see how to implement the good practices and verify their results, such as increased productivity and better coffee quality. Trinidad said that he hopes this will encourage participation and get farmers to start replacing old plants on at least a portion of their farms.
The next challenge will be to change mentalities. To help farmers effectively implement better practices, the project needs to get them to change some of their traditional working methods and eliminate such bad practices as child labour, which is common on farms and is considered the only way for children to learn farming.
Pedro Nicholás Santiago, an agronomist working in the state of Guerrero, explained that he’ll also have to find solutions to help farmers who can’t read or write, and thus can’t keep the records required by the programme, or farms that are smaller than one hectare and thus lack room for storage sheds, cleaning stations and other basic infrastructure. Better farming practices require equipment and chemicals, such as pesticides to be clearly labelled and stored away.
They’ll have to find alternatives in such circumstances. For example, asking a family member, another farmer, or a community leader to help a farmer keep records, and make signs. For farms that lack space for infrastructure, it may be possible to turn a room in the farmer’s house into a secure storeroom, or build a shed that can be shared by several neighbours.
“Our work and challenge is for these farmers to reach their full potential using the resources that they have,” said Iván Tetla, an agronomist who is working with 70 farmers in indigenous communities in Oaxaca, most of whom don’t speak Spanish. With the help of a translator, he has been helping them form groups to participate in the Plan and explaining how they will work. He says the challenge is great, but despite the language barrier, the farmers are interested in participating.
Through the Nescafé Plan, those farmers should end up producing more and better quality coffee, increasing their incomes, and becoming more skilled and competitive in the market, all the while reducing their impact on the environment. But according to Tetla, their greatest concern when they accepted the challenge was to maintain the land’s fertility, so that when their children inherit their farms, they will be full of healthy plants that produce plenty of coffee:
“I believe that the Nescafé Plan is one of the most important pillars in this revolution…I think that we are going to move forward as long as we are aware of where we are and where we want to go in a sustainable way… One very important factor is that the people are becoming aware, today they realise the great potential they have and the big commitment we must all make to contribute our part to make changes for the future.”
Look out for the next blog in the Nescafe Plan series, where Yessenia meets a family who bought a farm with not a single tree left on the land and is now a thriving certified coffee-farming oasis.